Yesterday, the CEO of SalesForce.com, Mark Benioff, called Microsoft a "dinosaur". While I balked at that statement at first, after some discussions with colleagues today, I now agree, but for reasons totally different than what he said.
My worldview of Microsoft is really of three distinctly separate organizations: Windows & Office, Developer Stuff, and Everything Else. When it comes to transparency in Microsoft, the Developer Division is like glass; they have it nailed down. A perfect example of this is the announcement of Visual Studio service packs on the day they announced the Visual Studio 2005 RTM. Now, initially I thought that the announcement was a very bad decision. It could potentially reduce adoption by businesses who don't believe Microsoft ships quality software.
But it was a good move after all. It helps businesses make solid decisions, plan their deployments, etc. And it was extremely transparent, which at the end of the day, is better for everyone.
However, the Windows & Office teams are still mired in all sorts of secrecy. They don't talk about ship dates, they don't talk about features... they don't talk about much of anything publicly until after the fact. And in that respect, they ARE still a dinosaur.
Controlling the Message
The Developer Division needs to school the Windows and Office teams on how to talk to customers. They still don't get it yet. Just because Microsoft has a PR firm, doesn't mean that they can't control the message. The problem is, their silence allows the media to control the message, and the media is not always objective.
Example: Say Microsoft was to say the following:
Windows Vista is coming along nicely. We're shooting to have another CTP out by the 22nd of November, and we're shooting to have features X, Y and Z in it.
Sweet. I know what it's gonna do, and I know when it's coming. Now lets say the 20th comes around, and someone from the team posts this:
We've run into some issues with Feature Y, and we want to deliver this to you in this build. So we're going to have to push the release date back to the 27th so we can do some extra testing.
Most people would say "Microsoft wants to make sure that, even though these aren't "beta" releases, I still get decent code that doesn't break too much. That's cool, take an extra week to get it done." The media might say something different, but that's their opinion.
Or, Microsoft might say this instead:
We've run into some issues with Feature Y, but we want to deliver this build on time. So we're going to have to disable Feature Y for now, but we're going to try really hard to get it finished in time for the next build.
Most people would say "That's alright. Thanks for letting us know about it, and we'll look forward to seeing it in the next build." Yeah, sure. Some nutjobs will go crazy, try to put words in MS's mouth, etc. But who cares, cause you'll have facts, publicly available, from the source of the decisions.
But the Windows team doesn't do that. The Windows Division management doesn't blog. They don't tell anyone outside the company. I'm NDA'd up to my eyeballs... and pretty sure that Microsoft owns my firstborn child... and I still can't even get someone to tell ME when somethings gonna ship.
By not talking about it, Microsoft opens itself up to the rampant, baseless speculation that comes from the likes of former NDA information leaker Paul Thurrott and others in the media. When 'Type A Techies' have nothing to take about, they're going to make crap up, so they can stay relevant. Why is such a huge organization letting other people control their message?
The competition on the Operating Systems and Productivity Suite fronts are vastly different then they were even 5 years ago. Linux is always going to be playing catchup to Windows for consumer software, because Windows is the de-facto standard for consumer computing. I hardly know of any consumers running OpenOffice at home... most get Microsoft Office bundled in their Dell or Gateway computer.
And so what if someone else was to try and do it first anyways? The point is to do it better, not to do it first. If MS Legal gets the patent process started earlier in the game, and part of the patent process is based on who is first to demonstrate it, then why not show it off earlier? At least let people know what's going on with the stuff that's already been talked about.
Maybe you guys in Windows management should put as much time into making your division transparent as you are into making your UI transparent. The division is like the window chrome is in 5231... translucent, but still not completely clear. You guys have done a great job so far, but don't kid yourselves into thinking you're there... you've got a LONG way to go.
The point of the matter is, Microsoft is the leader in Operating Systems and Productivity software. SO LEAD. Take charge, get out there, and be open about it. It's OK if companies copy the idea... they're going to have to so they can stay competitive anyways. I'm not saying to ignore them, but I am saying to bump us customers to the top of the priority list, and worry about them second. Let US know what's going on... they'll find out sooner or later anyways. Get control of your message, and stop letting other people tell your story.